Country #1. The UK is the first country I ever ‘visited’. While I had no choice in the matter – I was born here – it says something that this is the first post I have written about the UK. Like many Brits, I’m drawn to self-deprecation. This extends to the belief that the UK doesn’t offer as much as more ‘exotic’ destinations abroad. It has taken a global pandemic to show me how much these small islands have to offer. Global borders remain largely closed. While this is the ideal post-Brexit vision for the little Englanders of this country, I have been forced to look closer to home for the sense of unfamiliarity and excitement that I thought only foreign travel offered.
This brings me to the Jurassic Coast in Dorset. The name conjures images of dinosaurs, as well as a series with four more films than was perhaps necessary. But it actually reflects the fact that the rock formations on this craggy stretch of coastline are from the Jurassic period. The Jurassic Coast is England’s only natural World Heritage Site, something I discovered on arrival. As we drove into the region a sign said, “Welcome to the Jurassic Park”. Or “Coast”, probably. In any case, John Williams’s theme tune was in my head for the remainder of the weekend.
England Is Actually Quite Beautiful
I’m being slightly glib about what this country has to offer. I’ve seen enough of Britain to realise that it’s a beautiful island, with an incredible amount of history, culture, and natural beauty on offer. The UK is the seventh most visited country in the world, with 37.7 million visits in 2019. This alone implies there must be something good about this country. The Jurassic Coast is one of the best examples of the rich history and beautiful scenery on offer in the UK.
To start with, there are actual castles here. Corfe Castle and the surrounding village are stupendously picturesque. We visited on a fantastically rainy and grey day in July. The jet-black remnants of the castle lay perched on the top of a vertiginous hill. The ancient, dilapidated castle walls glistened with moisture in the mist, disappearing at points into the grey and brooding skies. What was quite depressing – weather aside – is that my genuine response to this epic personification of British history as it sidled into view was, “Wow, it looks really Game of Thrones-y, doesn’t it?”
This was an actual castle. Real kings and queens lived here. And it was conspicuous for not being made up. And yet, a TV show is what immediately sprung to mind. How sad. To be fair, we have zero control over the thoughts that pop into our consciousness. And I’m not alone in committing this faux pas. Any of you that have been to Dubrovnik in Croatia, Iceland, or Northern Ireland in recent years will know that Game of Thrones tourism is booming. The historical city of Dubrovnik, resplendent with its red tile roofs and marble streets, is impressive to some not because it’s a stunning citadel, but because of its use as a TV set. “It’s embarrassing,” I said, on a visit to the town in 2016. I had the upper hand then as I hadn’t watched the TV show yet and could happily judge others.
A Trip Back In Time
Some of the villages here are impossibly cute. Thatched roofs, uneven walls, and colourful doorways dot village high streets. As someone who spends most of their time in the UK in London, which for the most part is a modern city with a historic underbelly, it’s always a genuine shock to see that places exist in the UK that appear not to have changed in centuries. It was quite grating to see cars parked on the streets. They sat incongruously against my naive and condescending mental image of what village life should be like, complete with horse-drawn carriages and people morris dancing for some reason.
Village life aside, the main draw here is the stunning coastline. The highlight is a visit to Durdle Door, a natural arch formed from hard limestone protruding almost vertically out of the sea. And Lulworth Cove, which formed as the sea eroded through bands of rock of alternating geological resistance running parallel to the coastline. A concordant coastline, I must add. You’d be a fool to miss out Chesil Beach, a fantastic example of a Tombolo (a spit of land that connects to a nearby island). And then one of the highlights – Old Harry Rocks – with three chalk formations, including a stack and a stump.
Wow. That was boring. Why did I find myself drawn to the colourful diagrams explaining the geology of the coastline? And why have I just written extensively about geology? Was it that my school geography coursework was on the geological formations of the Jurassic Coast, and I wanted to prove to myself (and the reader) that this had not been an utter waste of my time? Perhaps. Or is it simply that as I move further past 30, I find myself increasingly drawn towards things that are objectively boring? Almost certainly. I read a book about flags the other day, for fun. Against this backdrop, a new-found interest in geology would make sense.
A Ragged And Enchanting Coastline
The scale of the cliffs on the Jurassic Coast is epic. On our visit, we resolved to continually ram home the positives that the beach was empty and our pictures would look “atmospheric” as a result of the Baltic weather. When the weather was much better the following day, however, all we could talk about was how much nicer it was with the sun out. Humans are quite good at pulling the wool over our own eyes when needs be.
The beaches along this coastline are impressive. Studland beach is one of the most beautiful sandy beaches in the UK, backed by large undulating dunes. Just over the bay – an unusual two-minute chain ferry ride away – is Sandbanks. It’s sometimes referred to (optimistically) as “The English Riviera”, most likely because of a clever marketing ploy by some estate agents. It worked, to be fair. Sandbanks is now home to the most expensive residences in the entire country.
Driving back to London, we took a short detour through the New Forest National Park, with its famous wild horses grazing lazily in the sunshine. With the prospect of overseas travel still looking like a distant one, I found myself feeling exceptionally grateful that this was the first country I ‘visited’. With so much more of these islands left to explore and places to revisit, I count myself lucky that I’ve been stuck in the UK during the global pandemic, and not Sierra Leone, which was a distinct possibility at one stage.